Gretchen McKay

She’s happy to be vegan, and thinks you will be, too

Crispy peanut tofu made with spiralized carrots and zucchini, topped with a spicy peanut sauce, cilantro and lime Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, at Sharon Gregory’s home in Pine Township. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Sharon Gregory had what she considered a pretty good diet when she set off into the world after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in math education. Plenty of fruits and vegetables. Moderate amounts of protein. Always easy on the sweet treats.

Even when she was constantly traveling the world, first as a sales service technician for Whirlpool and later as a Lean Six Sigma trainer and consultant with the company she started in 2001, she ate as healthily as possible.

But then in January 2014 she had a routine mammogram that detected an abnormal lump. It was malignant. Four rounds of chemotherapy and 32 days of radiation followed, during which time the 44-year-old Butler County native did some serious soul searching about what might have caused her cancer.

“Have you ever considered your diet?” a friend asked one day, recommending she pick up a copy of  “Crazy Sexy Diet.” Written by cancer survivor and wellness warrior Kris Carr, it champions a “healing lifestyle” focused around a plant-based diet.

When she read the NYT bestseller, “my eyes were opened,” says Ms. Gregory, who lives with her husband, Dave, in Pine. “I was horrified.”

She was particularly upset by the fact that only five to 10 percent of cancers can be attributed to genetic defects; the rest, experts say, may be linked to the environment, drinking, diet and lack of exercise. On the spot, she decided to change her lifestyle.

Everything that wasn’t plant-based immediately got tossed from the fridge.  “Are you going vegan?” asked her husband, even though he knew the answer “and just basically stayed out of my way,” she says.

By June that year, she was so immersed in the vegan lifestyle that she started a second business in the Shaler office building she’d bought in 2007 and transformed into an event/training center. It’s called The Happy Vegan, and its goal is to make plant-based eating and lifestyle choices more accessible, simple and sustainable. It offers coaching along with cooking classes and other events.

Before going vegan and gluten-free, Ms. Gregory had never prepared a meal with tofu and couldn’t tell quinoa from birdseed. Yet her background in education and love of data analysis, she says, made it easy for her to dive into a lifestyle that’s not exactly intuitive. “I read every author,” she says, and spent hours retooling and refining recipes that would have included animal protein.

She also took the Certified Holistic Health Coaching course at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a plant-based online culinary school.

Giving up animal products, she says, was easy enough, even if her husband chose to  remain a (mostly) happy carnivore. But her beloved cheese? “I had a mental and physical addiction,” she says laughing. To this day, she misses eating it even more than she misses good Italian bread or a crusty baguette.

While mozzarella- and Cheddar-style vegan cheeses aren’t difficult to find in better grocery stores, she kept striking out with creamy, dairy-free cheese spreads for dipping and slathering. Frustrated, she decided to create her own by mixing ground raw almonds, nutritional yeast, peppers, lemon juice, onions and sea salt in a Vitamix. It was an immediate hit.

“Every time she’d make it, we hit the bottom of the chip bag every time,” says Mr. Gregory. “It was like, ‘Wow!’ ”

She started taking the dip to friends’ house and parties. Before long, people were asking to buy it, prompting her to install a home kitchen. But it wasn’t until Noreen Campbell of McGinnis Sisters tasted a spoonful and declared it great that she realized there was a larger market for the cheesy spread she dubbed Notcho Nocheez.

“She asked me, ‘Is it shelf stable? If so, I can put it on store shelves,’” recalls Ms. Gregory, who immediately began researching co-packers.

With the help of Stello Foods, a specialty food manufacturer in Punxsutawney, the first commercially prepared batch rolled onto store shelves in January 2016. It’s now sold next to the salsa in about 80 storesacross the mid-Atlantic region, including Naturally Soergel’sShenot’s Farm and Market, Shop ’n Save, Pennsylvania Macaroni and Whole Foods. It comes in three flavors (Classic, Hot and Tangy) and costs $9.99 for a 12-ounce jar.  You also can buy it online at Notchonocheez.com.

Sales are strong enough that she’s now working to make the spread available in to-go packets to be used as a condiment or snack. She’d love to see it for sale in airports, where it’s exceedingly difficult for gluten-free and vegan travelers to buy something to eat on the go. She’s also pondering a spinach-artichoke dip.

Ms. Gregory concedes going vegan is challenging and takes planning. “But it’s doable. You just have to think it through,” she says.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Image DescriptionCrispy peanut tofu made with spiralized carrots and zucchini, topped with a spicy peanut sauce, cilantro and lime(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Crispy Peanut Tofu With Zucchini & Carrot Noodles

PG tested

The secret to crispy tofu is making sure you squeeze out the water and pat it dry after cutting it. 

1 package extra-firm tofu

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced

¼ cup organic peanut butter

3 tablespoons Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or low-sodium tamari

1 tablespoon organic coconut or brown sugar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 to 3 tablespoons chili-garlic sauce

3 tablespoons warm water

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 zucchini, spiralized or cut into matchsticks

2 carrots, spiralized or cut  into thin strips by using your peeler

Juice from ½ lime; the other ½ cut into wedges

2  tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

½ cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Open and drain tofu and press it gently between a few layers of paper towels between 2 pans or cutting boards (something solid) to help remove excess moisture. If you have time, continue adding pressure over about 30 minutes to get the tofu as dry as possible. Once drained, cut the tofu into ¾ – 1 inch cubes.

In a small mixing bowl, add garlic, ginger, peanut butter, Bragg’s, coconut sugar, sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce and water.

In large non-stick skillet over medium-high, heat olive oil. Once hot, add the cubed tofu and cook until crispy in places, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Add ½ of the peanut sauce and cook until the tofu is sticky and browned in places, 1 to 3 minutes. Transfer the crispy peanut tofu to a plate.

Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the zucchini and carrots. Add the remaining peanut sauce and gently toss. Reduce heat to medium and cook until noodles are heated, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the lime juice from half lime, and season with salt if needed.

Divide the veggie noodles between 2 bowls and top with the crispy peanut tofu. Sprinkle with the chopped cilantro and coconut flakes.

Serve with extra chili-garlic sauce (if desired), and garnish with lime wedges.

Serves 2.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Image DescriptionSharon Gregory of Pine Township garnishes her vegan version of an almond joy bars with mint leaves and strawberries(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Almond Joy Mini Bars

These taste just like the Almond Joy bars of old. 

For the filling

1½ cups dried unsweetened coconut

2 tablespoons coconut oil

3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch salt

For the coating

⅓ cup melted cacao butter

⅓ cup raw cacao powder

2 tablespoons maple syrup

Pinch sea salt

⅛ cup of sliced almonds

In a food processor fitted with the “S” blade, process all filling ingredients until well mixed and uniform. The filling will be a little wet, but it should stick together well.

Shape the filling into 12 mini rectangles if you want bars, or roll into 1-inch balls (easier). Place them on a parchment lined shallow casserole or baking pan. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a double boiler, melt the cacao butter over medium high heat. It won’t take long for the cacao butter to melt (less than 5 minutes).

When the cacao butter is melted, whisk in the cacao powder, maple syrup and sea salt. Don’t overcook! When the chocolate is mixed together and of a smooth consistency, remove from heat.

Allow coating to cool slightly, then take each mini bar and dip it into the coating and quickly place it back on the parchment paper. Return them to the fridge for 10 minutes, or until one coating has set. Repeat the process, so that each bar/ball has a double coat.

Press a few slivered almonds on top of each mini bar/ball after the second coating of chocolate. Return them to the fridge for another 10 minutes (or more), to let them set. Any leftovers can be put in an air tight container and kept in the refrigerator for several days (or the freezer).

Makes 12 bars.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Image DescriptionSharon Gregory of Pine Township as she describes her vegan, crab-less cakes, made with hearts of palm, garbanzo beans, Cajun seasoning, celery, jalapeno and lime juice.(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Crabless Cajun Cakes

Garbanzo beans and hearts of palm replace crab in these vegan cakes.

For cakes

1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

1 jalapeno, seeds and membranes removed, coarsely chopped

1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped

1 lime, juiced

2 tablespoons hemp seeds

2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning or spice

½ cup gluten-free panko breadcrumbs, divided

1 (15-ounce) can hearts of palm, drained and chopped, divided

¼ to ½ teaspoon sea salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

For aioli and slaw

2 to 3 cloves of garlic, depending on taste, minced

1 cup Veganaisse mayo

¼ green apple, cut into thin matchsticks

4 large kale leaves, stems removed, and chopped into bite-size pieces

1 beet, peeled and spiralized, or cut into thin matchsticks

1 carrot, peeled and spiralized, or cut into thin matchsticks

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a food processor, add the drained garbanzo geans, jalapeno, celery, 1 teaspoon lime juice, hemp seeds, Cajun seasoning, and ¼ cup of the panko breadcrumbs. Pulse about 10 times. Don’t make it mush! It should be chunky.

Add ½ can of drained/​chopped hearts of palm, sea salt, and pepper. Pulse about 3 times to incorporate into the cake mixture.

Form the cake mixture into 6 to 8 patties, place on a plate, and put in the fridge.

Make the lime aioli in a small bowl by adding the minced garlic, 2 teaspoons of the lime juice (add more to taste), Veganaise, and a pinch of salt. Stir. Add more lime juice if needed.

Make the “slaw” in a large bowl. Add the remaining chopped hearts of palm, apple, kale, beets, 1 tablespoon lime aioli, remaining lime juice, and a pinch of sea salt and pepper. Toss the salad to evenly coat.

Sprinkle the remaining panko crumbs over the cake patties. Carefully turn them over and coat the other side (press the breadcrumbs lightly onto the cakes so that it sticks on).

Place a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Once hot (a couple of minutes), add the cake patties and cook until golden brown, flipping once, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer the cakes to a paper towel-lined plate.

Put the slaw portions desired on a plate and top with the crabless cakes. Serve with lime aioli for dipping. Garnish with additional chopped lime, if desired.

Leftovers will keep overnight in an airtight container in the fridge for about 3 to 4 days.

Serves 2 to 3.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Dreams of a dreamer

Gisele Fetterman helps her son August, 4, get ready for school at their home in Braddock. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

The line of new and expectant mothers stretched a half block down Braddock Avenue by the time Gisele Fetterman opened the doors of a former-pharmacy-turned-business-incubator at 5 p.m. and welcomed in the smiling faces.

Inside was a mountain of baby equipment and supplies, still in their original packaging, free for the taking. The charity organization Delivering Good had dropped off 27 pallets of infant gear that morning — enough car seats, strollers and baby carriers to fill the beds of more than two dozen pickup trucks. It was time to give it all away at Braddock’s first community baby shower.

It took Ms. Fetterman and her volunteers more than eight hours to unload and sort the baby booty into piles. Larger pieces got stacked against a wall on one side of the room; baby books, clothes and blankets were piled high on a folding table on another, kitty-corner from where MAYA Organization handed out flyers about the nonprofit’s free services to pregnant women.

 

“It was my workout for the month,” joked Ms. Fetterman, 36, herself a mother of three, before rushing off to kiss a baby and envelop his excited mom in a hug.

Many politicians’ wives do good deeds for the communities they live in. Ms. Fetterman has rolled up her sleeves and gotten to work in her adopted town of Braddock from day one, and never slowed down. And she has big plans in her new role as Pennsylvania’s second lady after her husband, John, was sworn in as Pennsylvania lieutenant governor in January.

Since moving to Braddock from New Jersey more than 10 years ago, she has become one of the struggling steel town’s staunchest activists and community leaders. The baby shower showcased her latest initiative, The Hollander Project, the incubator and co-working space for local women entrepreneurs she co-founded last year.

In 2012, she established Free Store 15104, where residents in need can “shop” for slightly used clothes and household items and surplus food. In 2015, wanting to address the disparate problems of food insecurity and food waste, she co-founded 412 Food Rescue so that unwanted, perishable foods made its way into schools, shelters and charities instead of a Dumpster. For Good PGH, a nonprofit that works to advocate inclusion and inspire kindness, followed in 2017.

She doesn’t draw a salary for any of it.

It’s a contagious energy that has made the Brazilian “dreamer” who came to the U.S. undocumented at age 7 arguably more popular than Braddock’s longtime, larger-than-life former mayor — her husband John.

“She’s magical,” said Kristen Michaels, her partner at The Hollander. “She just believes things are going to work when everyone else is thinking about what can go wrong or how much work it will be.”

“She has an X-factor,” Mr. Fetterman agreed. “Her compassion and empathy has no filter, and people are drawn to that.”

She’s also fearless, especially when it comes to the subject of immigration.

After her husband was elected to office Nov. 6, she tweeted, “Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant. Thank you.”Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant. ❤️Thank you.

And at his inauguration on Jan. 15, she gave her fellow dreamers a visual shout-out by attaching a pin to the bow of her vintage-inspired dress. Handcrafted by Braddock-based Studebaker Metals, it reads “Immigrant” in flowing script.

‘GOING ON AN ADVENTURE’

Gisele Fetterman thought she was simply going on ”an adventure” when her mother, Ester, asked her to help pack a suitcase in 1989. In reality, they were leaving Brazil to immigrate to the U.S. Here she is on her Brazilian passport. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Ms. Fetterman was in second grade when her mother, Ester Resende, came home from work carrying two suitcases. They were going on an adventure, she said, and Gisele and her older brother, Delfim, needed to pack. At the time, the family was living in Rio de Janeiro’s middle-class community of Jacarepagua in the West Zone, but it was close to one of the city’s largest slums. Her mom, who had divorced Ms. Fetterman’s father when Ms. Fetterman was just a baby, had decided to escape Rio de Janeiro’s never-ending violence after learning her sister-in-law Madalena had been robbed for a seventh time. Within days, they were on a plane to New York.

No one in her family spoke any English, so they had to rely on a friend of a friend to put them up in an extra bedroom while they searched for a cheap apartment. They ended up above a doctor’s office in Queens, where her mother — a nutritionist with a doctorate in Brazil — found work cleaning houses and working for tips as a coat check girl. They furnished the apartment with items their neighbors had discarded at the curb.

Gisele Fetterman spent her early childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She immigrated with her mother, Ester, and brother, Delfim, to the U.S. in 1989, when she was 7. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Gisele Fetterman visits the West Zone neighborhood she grew up in during an August 2018 visit to Rio de Janeiro. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

At first, Ms. Fetterman found trash-picking puzzling; in Brazil, she said, nobody ever throws anything away. But soon enough, whenever they heard garbage trucks rumbling down the block, “that’s when we went shopping,” she said. Her mother, who moved to North Braddock to be close to her daughter and her family, still has some of those original pieces in her home.

Gisele Fetterman’s parents, Delfim Almeida and Ester Resende, pictured in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

In 1990, the family moved across the Hudson River to more affordable Harrison, N.J. Studies show that children of immigrants experience more poverty and don’t do as well in school. But Ms. Fetterman, who learned English by watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” said her family always managed to get by because of her mother’s sacrifices, even if they had to be invisible and avoid the spotlight. Smart and hardworking, she was inducted into the National Honor Society in high school.

“Kids adapt,” she said.

Other than being teased occasionally about her “unibrow,” she had no problem making friends with other ESL students. She marched in her middle school color guard, acted in school plays and dipped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins after school and on weekends. But she was never completely at ease until she became a permanent resident in 2004. Until then, she knew she could be deported at any time. “You pay taxes and work so hard, so it was like, ‘What do you mean you won’t want us here?’” she said. She became a U.S. citizen in 2009.

Her brother became an artist in New York City. She studied math at Kean University in New Jersey before deciding she’d really rather be a holistic nutritionist. She earned her degree at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition for Holistic Nutrition while also volunteering as a “hugger” at a home for babies going through withdrawal and feeding the homeless at a Salvation Army canteen in Newark, N.J.

“I always knew her future would be bright,” said her mother, because she’s a glass-half-full person. “She wears rose-colored glasses and wants people to see through those glasses.”

One person greatly influenced by Ms. Fetterman is Destinee Holmes, who met her when she was 10 through a Big Sister mentoring program in Newark. Ms. Holmes, who is studying criminal justice at Essex County College, still talks to her at least three times a week.

“She’s just a beautiful person who wants the best for you,” said Ms. Holmes, noting how she helped her navigate a skin disorder. “You can trust that she’ll always be there for you.”

After graduating from the institute in 2007, Ms. Fetterman worked as a nutritionist focusing on food justice and access. She often organized pop-ups where she distributed free furniture and other nonperishables that businesses had donated to Newark residents in need.

“I was food insecure growing up,” she said, “so knowing that even one less person isn’t is really special to me.”

A PERFECT FIT

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gets help putting on his tie from his wife, Gisele Fetterman, in their hotel room before leaving for his swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

It was a 2007 article in a magazine called ReadyMade that introduced her to Braddock. Relaxing at a yoga retreat, she read about the heavily tattooed mayor in shorts who was trying to revitalize a forgotten town. As someone who also had chosen to live and work in a town that many had written off, she felt a connection.

Gisele and John Fetterman on their wedding day in 2008. The couple eloped to Burlington, Vt., and picked a justice of the peace out of the phone book. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

“It stayed in my head,” she said, and so she wrote a letter to the borough about the work she was doing and how it might translate to Braddock. Impressed that somebody had actually taken the time to put pen to paper, Mr. Fetterman called and asked her to visit. She accepted, and a month later they were exchanging strategies and ideas at a reception at the library.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight. But there was something about the 6-foot-8 man that just felt … right. Mr. Fetterman felt it, too.

“She charmed everybody,” he said, including his parents, who were in town visiting.

Braddock, Ms. Fetterman decided, was nothing like the sad, abandoned town she’d read about. “It just needed more love.”

Their relationship blossomed, and they eloped to Burlington, Vt., in June 2008, picking a justice of the peace out of the phone book. On their wedding night, they discovered they were having a baby. Karl is now 10, and they also have Grace, 7, and August, 4.

To those who don’t know them, they make a most unlikely pair, and not just because the differences are so visually striking.

She easily tears up and is constantly kissing babies. He rarely cracks a smile in public.

Stylish, with a weakness for boots, she has amassed an enviable wardrobe of thrift store and sales rack finds that ensures she looks chic even when she’s handing out diapers. He wore cargo shorts to their wedding.

She was raised vegetarian and their kids don’t eat meat either. He loves a good cheeseburger.

And she’s happy to be the front woman for her many projects and events. An introvert, he’d much rather work quietly behind the scenes.

What makes the relationship work, they said, is a shared commitment to lending a hand to those who need it and passion for social justice. “He’s just good,” Ms. Fetterman said of her husband.

“She’s the real leader,” he insisted, adding, “I’m jealous everyone loves her, for good reason.”

A FRIEND TO EVERYONE

Gisele Fetterman, with her daughter Grace, then 4 months, attends a 2011 protest to support breastfeeding in public. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

It’s virtually impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about Ms. Fetterman.

“She just says ‘yes’ without thinking about what she’s committed us to?” offered Ms. Michaels, who worked with her on the Hello Hijab project at For Good Pittsburgh, which makes tiny hijabs for Barbie dolls to teach kids about religious and cultural differences.

Gisele Fetterman circled this tweet on her Instagram story to show some people’s reaction to her childhood as an undocumented immigrant. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

David Esch of Aspinwall said he learned everything he needed to know about Ms. Fetterman last year, when her Free Store volunteers won the Jefferson Award for Public Service Team. Rather than go up on stage with her team to accept the award, she stayed in the shadows, allowing them to bask in the limelight. “It’s just how she’s wired,” he said of her generosity.

On social media, she fields a lot of vitriol from posters criticizing the fact she’s an immigrant, he said, adding that it’s unbelievably offensive and hurtful. But after many tears, she’s learned not to take it personally, he said. Instead, she tries to get her detractors to understand her point of view. “She just wants to do her projects.”

Leonard Hammonds got to know her through the nonprofit Hammonds Initiative, which offers mentoring programs to at-risk youths.

He can’t wait for the rest of Pennsylvania to become acquainted with her as she looks to expand her programs as the state’s second lady. Free Store 15104 has already inspired nine spinoff locations, and she also is interested in criminal justice reforms, especially making children’s visits to inmate parents less traumatic by allowing them to wear street clothes and meet in a warmer visiting room.

She also supports her husband’s 67-county recreational marijuana listening tour and has made no bones about being a participant in the state’s new medical marijuana program because of her own back pain caused by two herniated discs. She tweeted on Feb. 15, “I was one of the 83,000. Thank you, @GovernorTomWolf.”

She doesn’t care if you hold the highest title or are homeless, Mr. Hammonds, of Penn Hills, said. “She treats everyone the same and looks for nothing in return.”

Baby shower volunteer Cathy Welsh of Turtle Creek pointed to her knack for organizing and getting community members to work as a team. She orchestrated the event in just a matter of days because she has such a large network of supporters and has a reputation for building bridges.

The Fettermans, from left, Karl, 9 at the time this photo was taken, John, Grace, 7, Gisele and August, 4, take a walk Jan. 8 on the Westmoreland Heritage Trail in Trafford. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Not that it’s always about getting stuff. Ms. Fetterman also is very aware of people’s feelings and emotional needs, Ms. Welsh said, “even if it’s just a hug.” She got plenty after her 16-year-old son Jerame Turner was killed in a double shooting in November 2017.

Gisele Fetterman wears a pin that reads “Immigrant” before John Fetterman’s swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Living in the lieutenant governor’s mansion in Fort Indiantown Gap, about 20 miles northeast of Harrisburg, Ms. Fetterman said, would not have been appropriate for their family. So her husband is commuting back and forth. It’s been tough to squeeze in much “us” time between her volunteering and the kids’ various activities. Just the other day, Mr. Fetterman said, they slipped away for a lunch of summer rolls from Green Mango in Wilkins. “But we ate in the car,” he said.

There’s no defined role or handbook for the second lady of Pennsylvania, a title Ms. Fetterman playfully refers to as SLOP. So it’s hard to say what’s to come in 2019. She’d like to see a more honest dialogue about what it means to be an immigrant in the U.S., of course, so people won’t see her and others like her as “that illegal.” Greater opportunities for the residents of Braddock and other underserved, marginalized communities are also paramount.

And she’d like to affect the food environment legislatively, so no one ever has to go hungry.

“If she’s got it to give, she’s going to give it to you,” said Free Store volunteer Jeanette Embry. “She’s teaching us all how to be a better person.”

Wedding soup is a marriage made in heaven

LOWELLVILLE, Ohio — Nancy Grapevine and her sister, Marilee Pilkington, have been making their mother’s wedding soup for longer than they can remember. Like any self-respecting Italian cooks, they think it’s the best. Award-winning, even, which is why on a recent Saturday, they braved a wicked winter blast that dumped several inches of snow on this tiny village along the Mahoning River to enter a wedding soup cook-off.

The starter that’s a staple at so many red sauce Italian-American restaurants is the highlight of a “Bigga Day” party that kicks off the Mt. Carmel Society’s annual Italian festival each July. So when members of the Italian men’s club were trying to come up with a new fundraiser last October, they decided: why not host a contest to determine who does it the best?

More than a third of the town’s population traces its roots to the Mezzogiorno region of southern Italy. Asking people to pit their families’ recipes against one another, said club president Dave Gagliano, who lives just over the Pennsylvania border in Hillsville, Lawrence County, would keep the tradition of Italian foods going.

That, “and we knew it would be a hit”  for the society founded in 1895 by Pietro Pirone as a homeless shelter for Italian immigrants. Especially since there was just one rule: Contestants each had to bring at least three gallons of soup to the club for the blind tasting.

All 20 spots were snapped up within three days, and the club also sold all 200 of its $20 tickets to the event, which included pizza,  hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction in addition to a tasting spoon and ballot.

Ms. Grapevine and her sister carried in five gallons of the soup recipe their mother, Mary Perry, used to feed to New Castle fireworks master Louis Zambelli  and his workers a half-century ago. They spent the entire day simmering and straining the broth, to which they added chopped chicken, miniature beef meatballs, escarole and the tiny homemade dough balls their mom always referred to as “hickies.”

 

What makes the soup so incredibly delicious, said Ms. Grapevine, is that they follow their mom’s golden rule of never putting garlic in the meatballs, and cooking them just so.

“You want your teeth just to sink into them,” she said.

The soup was good enough for the sisters to be voted runners-up in the popular vote. But it was  Ed Snitzer, a plumbing contractor who also runs an Italian food trailer called Jaam Concession, who took home the judges’ trophy along with $500.

The Youngstown, Ohio native attributed his win to his soup’s quarter-inch-square croutons, which are handmade with grated pecorino. “Pasta?” he said when asked about his competitors’ versions. “True Italian wedding soup doesn’t have it!”

A peasant dish born of necessity

Pittsburgh likes to call claim to wedding soup because of the many generations of Italians who’ve made it a must-have dish at restaurants as diverse as Big Jim’s in lower Greenfield, Delallo’s Fort Couch Cafe in Bethel Park. La Gondola Pizzeria in Market Square and Eat’n Park. The truth is, the humble concoction of broth with greens and meatballs is equally popular in the parts of Ohio with large Italian populations, such as Youngstown and Cleveland.

It’s thought to have originated in Naples in the 15th century,  before the tomato was introduced into Italian cuisine, though some argue it was Spanish cooks who brought a similar stew called olla podrida there a century earlier from Toledo and other parts of central Spain.

In Italy, says food historian and Italian food authority Francine Segan, the soup is traditionally eaten at Christmas and Easter because it’s hearty and makes an easy extra course. Where you won’t find it is at weddings. That’s because its original name in Italian, minestra maritata, doesn’t have anything to do with a bride or groom. It actually translates to “married soup” or “wedded soup.”  The green vegetables and meat  “si sposa bene” — they go really well together.

While today the dish is typically made with escarole or swiss chard, in olden days it probably featured puntarelle, a type of Catalonian chicory, said Ms. Segan; borage leaves also would have been essential in the greens mix.  There definitely would have been the tiny meatballs made from different cuts of meat that are so common in Italy, and perhaps also sausage and the chicken that would have cooked off the bone while making the slow-simmered broth.

And it almost always had tiny dumpling-like homemade pasta called Cazzetti d’angelo, which roughly translates to the private parts of male angels.

Because it was a peasant food created from scraps and leftovers, it’s almost impossible to find two recipes that are alike, said Viviana Altieri, founder and executive director of Istituto Mondo Italiano in Regent Square. That’s especially true if you’re comparing American versions to those in Italy; Italians grow other types of leafy vegetables and have cuts of meat that aren’t available in the U.S.

In a typical red sauce restaurant here in the U.S., she says, you would normally see it with tiny meatballs floating in a bowl surrounded by acini di pepe pasta. Back home in Italy, “you would make the broth with small pork spare ribs, beef shank, at times little pieces of prosciutto.”

Italian chef Lidia Bastianich  in “Lidia’s Mastering The Art of Italian Cuisine” crafts meatballs from sweet Italian sausage, while Giada Laurentiis opts for a mixture of pork and beef.  Matty Matheson, star of Viceland’s “It’s Suppertime!” bucks tradition completely by eschewing greens and adding golf-sized meatballs to the soup. He also trades the commonplace orzo, pastina or acini di pepe for a savory “lace” made by whisking a mixture of egg, Romano cheese and fresh bread crumbs into the hot broth.

At Big Jim’s, the preferred green is escarole, and the popular homemade soup includes chunks of chicken along with beef meatballs and sliced carrot — an addition that would surely drive Ms. Grapevine mad.

While the Lowellville native seasons the broth with the veggie, it’s always strained out before adding the greens and pasta. “There is no orange in the Italian flag,” she said.

A perfect assimilation of flavors and textures

Wedding soup is a forgiving soup in that any combination of meats and vegetables creates a warm bowl of Italian comfort. But there are some rules, says chef Michael Alberini, who owns an upscale Italian restaurant in Youngstown and helped judge Mt. Carmel Society’s cook-off.

Today’s home cook might not have the time or patience to make the old-style wedding soup he grew up with, and which took all day to cook using a variety of meats, homemade broth, pastina and a garden of vegetables including escarole. But with many quality boxed broths available on store shelves, even quick versions can create beautiful flavors and elicit joy, he says, if you follow four simple tips.

For starters, go easy on the salt. This is especially true if you’re using a boxed broth instead of making it from scratch. Don’t blindly add it without first tasting, even if the recipe calls for it.

Be sure to skim the fat off the soup before you serve it. What makes wedding soup taste so rich is the oil content from all the proteins simmering over a long period of time. If you don’t skim it off as it rises to the top, it will act as a barrier to the wonderful extracted flavors you’ve been cooking all day.  “If you don’t get rid of it, it really blocks the flavor profile,” he says.

Don’t go crazy with the seasonings. Spicy meatballs will overpower the nuanced flavor of the soup. It’s the broth that should be enhancing the meatballs, not visa versa.

Take it slow. As Americans, we’re used to instant gratification, says Mr. Alberini. So we tend to use higher heat when cooking to rush the process. But that disallows the proteins  in wedding soup to break down into a tender product. And the last thing you want when you’re eating soup is to have to work through a chewy piece of chicken or a dry meatball.

“You can’t rush the flavor of love,” he says.

And if you don’t cook? No worries. General Mills, makers of Progresso’s line of premium soups, has a winner with its canned wedding soup  in Western Pennsylvania. Exact sales are proprietary, of course, “but I can confirm that people in Pittsburgh are definitely eating more of Progresso’s Italian Wedding Soup than people in other parts of the country,”  spokesman Mike Siemienas wrote in an email. He add, “There is no doubt that people in Pittsburgh love it .”

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Image DescriptionWedding soup is a popular starter at Pittsburgh’s red sauce Italian-American restaurants. Its original name in Italian, minestra maritata, has nothing to do with brides or grooms. It translates to “married soup,” and refers to the fact that greens and meat go really well together.(Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette)

Italian Wedding Soup

PG tested

Feel free to substitute or your favorite green for the escarole in this recipe. 

For the meatballs

½ pound beef, ¼ pound each ground veal and pork,

2 tablespoons fresh parsley

¼ cup grated Romano cheese

¼ teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

1 egg, slightly beaten

2 slices white bread soaked in about ¼ cup milk

For the broth

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 large carrots, diced

12 cups high-quality chicken broth (do not use low-sodium)

½ head escarole, shredded  or chopped

1 bay leaf

For soup

2 cups shredded, roasted chicken 

1 cup pastina or acini di pepe,, cooked according to package instructions

Parmesan cheese, for serving

Make meatballs. Place all ingredients except bread in a large bowl. Squeeze milk from bread and break apart. Add to the bowl and mix until ingredients are thoroughly combined. Form into grape-sized meatballs, and set aside while you make broth.

In a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes. Add the chicken broth, escarole and bay leaf, and season with  salt and pepper.

When the soup comes to a boil, add the prepared meatballs and chicken. Lower to a simmer and cook with the lid on for 30 minutes.Taste for seasoning and adjust, then cooked pasta and cook just until heated through..

Remove and discard the bay leaf before serving. Serve hot with Parmesan cheese at the table.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

— Gretchen McKay

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